Here we are, on the other side of a nerve-frazzling election season. Now is time to focus on the calendar’s next stress-inducer: the Holiday Season. This is the time when we gather around a table to engage in pleasantries with relatives we’ve spent the previous months engaging in far-from-pleasant political debate. Oh … the joy.
With emotions running high and funds swinging low, most of us will set out to travel long distances for that joy. Layer in over-committed schedules, chaotic roadways, flight delays, and even the most seasoned traveler contemplates becoming a holiday homebody. Yet for love of family or need of escape, many of us will choose to travel this season.
So, how can we navigate holiday travel with sanity and cheer intact?
By first acknowledging that travel is a choice and privilege. Whether driving into the warm embrace of a family home or flying across the country or planet to escape the familiar, travel grants us the opportunity to see the world through different eyes: a pilgrim’s eyes.
With a thankful spirit and expert advice as companions it is possible to navigate the good, bad, and, at times, comic ugliness of holiday travel.
Here are our tips for survival:
“Savvy travelers know you can travel with comfort during any time of the year, as long as you take a little time to plan,” says Roman Shteyn, CEO and co-founder of RewardExpert. Consider flights on the actual holiday when airports are less congested, he recommends. “For example, RewardExpert’s Thanksgiving 2016 Holiday Air Travel Forecast found the least delays took place on Thanksgiving day itself,” says Shteyn.
AAA public relations manager Julie Hall also recommends being flexible when it comes to dates. “Sometimes altering your trip by just a day or two can result in significant savings,” she says.
Flights are usually more expensive on Sunday and Monday following a holiday, so consider a Saturday departure, or as Gabe Saglie of Travelzoo suggests, “Make mom happy and stay longer,” adding that flight costs generally drop on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Experts agree: on any given day, early morning flights are best for on-time departures and history helps predict delays. “Our Forecast found that out of the major U.S. carriers, Delta performed the best over Thanksgiving travel dates and came in second overall after regional carrier Hawaiian Airlines,” says Shteyn.
A big mistake is booking flights with layovers. “One and two-way fares may be cheaper than the nonstop flights,” says Saglie. “But you have to weigh your savings against the potential for delays wrought by winter weather and the odds of you (or your luggage) missing your connection.” When a connection is necessary, choose airports less prone to winter weather episodes, “like Houston versus Chicago,” he says.
And upgrade where possible. “We spend all year trying to avoid those darn extra airline fees,” Saglie says. “But during the holidays, especially on really busy days and on those cramped long-haul flights, paying a little more for certain perks could make your trip a lot happier.”
Splurge on that aisle seat or exit row and tap into rewards programs that offer perks. “Having lounge access has alleviated undue stress in the past when my travel plans have gone awry,” says Shteyn.
AAA says one of the biggest mistakes people make is setting out without making sure their vehicle is road trip ready. “Some of the top reasons members will call AAA this holiday season are dead batteries, flat tires and locking keys in their cars,” says Julie Hall. She recommends a thorough vehicle, battery, and tire inspection. And, don’t forget to stock an emergency kit. “It should include a flashlight, extra batteries, warning devices (such as flares or reflective triangles), jumper cables, a first-aid kit and extra water,” continues Hall. “Also, be sure to keep your cell phone fully charged and have an extra charger with you.”
Monitor weather forecasts frequently. Even if weather isn’t a factor, roads will be busy and drivers should budget time to proceed with caution and avoid peak travel periods.
If traveling with kids, pack snacks, games, puzzles and schedule breaks every two hours or 100 miles so everyone stays happy and alert.
Shteyn recommends comparing rates on aggregator sites, then calling hotels directly. “They will likely match the lowest price,” he says, “And you’ll get all the perks of having booked direct, which can include free Wi-Fi and added flexibility when making changes or adjustments to your reservation.”
Be sure to mine credit card programs for hotel perks too. Many like Citi Prestige offer free nights for booking through designated travel partners. But always read the fine print. Many hotels and packages have strict cancellation policies and pre-payment requirements during the holidays.
For those inclined to escape, Shteyn recommends comparing costs to find a spot that works for travelers from different departure cities.
“Meet somewhere that travelers are leaving, a city like New York or Chicago,” he says. “Room rates tend to be lower as you are not competing with business travelers and many residents leave to visit their families so it can be a quiet time in major cities.”.
If dates are flexible, Saglie says ski destinations often offer discounts the first few weeks of ski season (from Thanksgiving to the week before Christmas.) That time frame also sees thinner crowds in hotspots like Hawaii and Las Vegas.
Independent travelers may shutter at the thought of all-inclusive resorts and cruises, yet there’s no denying the family appeal. “They offer good value and low stress, with many activities, entertainment and meals included in the price and already planned out for the family to enjoy,” says Hall.
“Avoiding last-minute panic by planning ahead can help travelers feel calm
and prepared,” says Shteyn. “While traveling, be sure to wear comfortable
clothing, stay hydrated, and look for respite in calm areas. If you don’t have
lounge access, look for an empty gate or visit the chapel to regroup and
revitalize yourself before a flight.”
Always try to remember the reason for the season. When things go wrong, laugh. When things go right, let thankfulness abound. Read that long-shelved book. Listen to happy music. Meditate. Breath. Celebrate the privilege of peaceful travel. And, when it comes to the (many) elements out of our control, channel your inner Bowie:
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do.
Image: David Zellaby, CC-BY
Jess Simpson is continually seeking Zen, and more often than not, finding joy in the chaos of travel. You can join her journey on Facebook and Instagram.